Transportation experts view the call for dramatic federal government action in response to the economic crisis as an opportunity to overhaul the U.S. system of highways, bridges, railways, and mass transit. A series of sobering report cards from the American Society of Civil Engineers documents the inadequacy of this system. President Barack Obama took office pledging to act; his February 2009 stimulus package provides nearly $50 billion for transportation infrastructure. But many experts look beyond the stimulus and call for shifts in longer-term policy that will fundamentally alter the approach to planning and funding infrastructure and bolster U.S. competitiveness, quality of life, and security. In the past, the United States has revamped its transportationinfrastructure to build canals, transcontinental railways, and a federal highway system, in each case helping usher in periods of economic growth.
A State of Disrepair
A January 2009 report by the American Society of Civil Engineers on infrastructure, much of it involving the transportation sector, concluded: "all signs point to an infrastructure that is poorly maintained, unable to meet current and future demands, and in some cases, unsafe." It found that aviation, transit, and roads, already rated abysmal four years ago, had declined even further. Lost time from road congestion, the report estimated, was costing the economy more than $78 billion dollars a year while nearly half of U.S. households still had no access to bus or rail transit.
At the same time, national spending on infrastructure is often depicted as a faulty, wasteful process. Annual federal spending on transportation infrastructure in recent years has averaged more than $60 billion, and billions have been spent since 9/11 on aviation security. The Congressional Research Service cites Transportation Department data showing that the number of structurally deficient bridges was cut nearly in half...